IUCN World Conservation Congress

As the sun rose, the arrival of the Moana Pasifika Voyaging Vaka canoe on the shores of Kahanamoku Beach in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, symbolically kicked off the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress, shedding light on discussions and motions that were the focus of the IUCN Members Assembly; a call for action on climate change and a healthy, resilient, sustainable ocean to benefit present and future generations.

The Hawaiian concept of mālama honua – caring for our island earth – is associated with voyaging traditions of indigenous peoples and conveys an important lesson: our natural world is a gift with limits and we must carefully steward this gift if we are to survive together. As we work to protect cultural and environmental resources for our future, these lessons encourage venturing beyond the horizon to connect and learn with others. The 2016 IUCN held in Hawai‘i truly ventured beyond the horizon, bringing together over 9,500 attendees representing government agencies, Non-Government Organization’s (NGOs), scientists, and the business community from over 190 nations, and more than 1,000 school students to participate in the largest, and most diverse, conservation gathering in the world.

Despite the fact that the ocean is what separates us, it is also what brings us together. Much like these voyaging traditions, the IUCN is a means by which world leaders in conservation now engage all of Island Earth, bridging indigenous and modern knowledge to take informed action on the issues we face today, while sharing, learning, creating global relationships, and discovering the wonders of this precious place we all call home.

The ecosystems that underpin the worlds economies’ well-being and survival are collapsing, species are becoming extinct at unprecedented rates, and our climate is in a crisis. An ‘ōlelo no‘eau, or proverb preserved in Hawaiian culture, reads, pūpūkahi i holomua – we must unite to move forward, by working together we make progress, and embodies the action we must take as a result of the issues we currently face. It signifies the necessity of each paddler in a canoe pulling the paddles together in order to make the canoe move forward quickly. With our planet at a crossroads, world leaders have realized that this is the moment we need to paddle together in order to move forward quickly and the IUCN made it its mission in doing so. The 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress happened at a pivotal moment in time, in an iconic location most vulnerable to the issues we face today with the greatest need for action.

The IUCN recommendations and findings form the basis of legislation around the world. Its members debate and act on key issues identifying the next steps for implementing the historic United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement, which determined the new direction for the IUCN, and stresses the integration of economic development, social progress, and environmental protection. These agreements represent a historic opportunity to improve the lives of billions of people around the world and put nature at the heart of our decision-making. The success of these agreements depends on how quickly they are turned into sustainable action. Likewise, world leaders have witnessed that business as usual is no longer an option and made it their goal for this IUCN to be one of implementation of action.

As a result of U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement of the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM) at the forefront of the congress, this years IUCN included further motions on increasing Marine Protected Area (MPA) coverage for effective marine biodiversity conservation and sustainability. Now PMNM is a 583,000 square mile no take zone, an area larger than all the national parks combined, and quadruple its previous size.

In response to President Obama’s executive action, Sylvia Earle remarked, “history will remember this anniversary and next century as the “blue centennial” – the time when the national park idea was brought to the ocean. It couldn’t come too soon.” 

At the opening ceremony of the IUCN, President of the Republic of Palau Tommy Remengesau shot a friendly challenge at President Obama to “join the big leagues” and protect 80 percent of the United State’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as the Palauan National Marine Sanctuary has. In retrospect, the U.S. EEZ is the largest in the world, spanning over 13,000 miles of coastline, and extending 200 nautical miles offshore, overall containing 3.4 million square nautical miles of ocean – larger than the combined land area of all fifty states. Currently, with the expansion of PMNM, the U.S. has protected 15 percent of its EEZ. The U.S. has a ways to go in reaching 80 percent protection, however, it is this type of bold thinking that we need to have in order to see the change we wish to see in the world.

Keeping ocean issues in the spotlight during high-level policy discussions, the wishful thinking of President Remengesau, the accomplishments of President Obama, and the work of other ocean leaders, have inspired a chain of new MPAs and motions relating to ocean wellness during this congress. Some highlights include French Polynesia’s commitment to increasing their marine managed area to four times that of Hawai‘i, topping Papahānaumokuākea in being the world’s largest marine protected area!

Dr. Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue, and Carl Gustaf Lundin, IUCN’s Director of the Global Marine and Polar program also announced 14 new Hope Spots (marine environments especially deserving of protection). The new Hope Spots came directly from "a concerned global community calling out for more ocean protection." Mission Blue explains, "by allowing citizens to elect their own Hope Spots, thus taking responsibility and ownership of their environment, Mission Blue and IUCN hope to meet the goal of igniting broad public support for a global network of marine protected areas large enough to protect and restore the ocean’s health" – hope for the oceans and hope for mankind, as Sylvia Earle would say.

Lead conservation organizations also announced new partnerships and plans to identify more Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) over the next five years and developed a global standard for KBA’s at the congress. This includes a network of over 15 million mapped areas in need of conservation that will identify threats and conservation actions to advise national governments in expanding the protected areas network and private companies to mitigate and ensure there is minimized impact on nature.

Additionally, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) revealed they are beginning to explore the different ways their work may one day apply to the wonders of the open ocean. They announced that their mission is to ensure the 49 marine sites on their World Heritage List are conserved and sustainably managed so future generations can continue to enjoy them.

Governor Ige of Hawai‘i also realized the mauka (mountain) to makai (ocean) connection, as he announced his commitment “to protecting 30 percent of Hawai‘i’s highest priority watersheds, and effectively managing 30 percent of Hawai‘i’s near shore ocean waters by 2030, as coral reefs provide capital for spectacular marine life and the people of Hawai‘i.”

Likewise, scientists tell us at least 30 to 50 percent of the ocean must be fully protected to restore its health. Today, 13 percent of terrestrial land is protected, but only 3 percent of the ocean is strongly protected in no-take marine reserves, which are permanently set aside from direct human disturbance and all methods of fishing and extraction of natural materials, including dumping, dredging, mining, or construction activities. With inspiration from various efforts to protect our oceans, the ambitious and controversial motion 53 was passed in Honolulu at the World Conservation Congress to set aside at least 30 percent of the world’s oceans as “highly protected” areas by 2030!

Furthermore, the IUCN Members Assembly voted to create a new category of membership for Indigenous peoples' organizations. This will open the opportunity to strengthen the presence and role of Indigenous organizations in the IUCN, marking "a major step towards achieving the equitable and sustainable use of natural resources," says IUCN Director General Inger Andersen. "Indigenous peoples are key stewards of the world's biodiversity. By giving them this crucial opportunity to be heard on the international stage, we have made our Union stronger, more inclusive, and more democratic." 

Eighty-five other motions were brought forward and adopted by the IUCN congress and have become resolutions or recommendations for third parties to take action.

Following the IUCN, during the Our Oceans Summit, President Obama also announced the first ever Atlantic Marine National Monument, and Pitcairn Island protected area was additionally announced becoming the second largest marine sanctuary in the world with 99 percent of its EEZ protected, among other amazing advancements and announcements for our oceans future. Today, the coverage of MPA’s has increased by almost 300 percent within the last decade. We are definitely moving forward quickly!

E kaupē aku nō i ka hoe a kō maiput forth the paddle and draw it back. As this years IUCN World Conservation Congress came to an end, world leaders have put forth their paddles. Now we must go on with this progress and continue pulling our paddles together. One stroke at a time, one protected area at a time, all joining in together to move forward for a better future.

 

SARAH ‘ALOHILANI JENKINS – OCEAN CONSERVATION RESEARCH FELLOW

Prior to interning with Civic Enterprises and attending her first year of college at Duke University, Sarah held leadership roles in Maui County and Hawaii State Student Council organizations, mentored middle and elementary school students in STEM education, educated Molokai community members on environmental issues, presented at the Hawaii Conservation Conference on research, and led various projects regarding the sustainability and conservation of natural resources on her home island of Molokai, Hawaii. Sarah’s current research utilizes Geographic Information Systems to analyze the socioeconomic and ecological impact Red Mangrove is having along the southern coast of Molokai and its imminent threat to the fringing reef. This original research earned her 1st place in the world in the category of Earth and Environmental Science at the 2015 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Her work caught the attention of Esri CEO, Jack Dangermond, who asked Sarah to be a plenary speaker before 17,000 geospatial professionals and software engineers at the 2015 Esri International User Conference in California. Growing up on the island of Molokai, Sarah has been committed to protecting Hawaii’s unique natural and cultural resources that has led her on a path to majoring in Environmental Science and Policy at Duke University.

Perception vs. Reality

For many politicians and media outlets, promoting a narrative that is biased towards the negative aspects of world events can be an effective way to engage the public’s attention or win support.  There are moments when, on face value, it would seem as if the world is becoming a darker, more dangerous place.  At times, it can be easy to lose perspective on how far we have come as a species, particularly in the past several hundred years.  There are many diverse challenges facing our world that all need addressing, but we can take a measure of comfort in knowing that quality and security of life have been increasing steadily for most people throughout the centuries, and that they continue to do so.


    On both the local and international stage, acts of violence on all scales understandably produce a disproportionate amount of attention in the public.  Due to the increasing scope and accessibility of media, these acts become magnified. However, one measurable way in which the world has altogether become a much more congenial place to live is in the decline of violence.  In his highly regarded work, “Better Angels of Our Nature,” Harvard linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker makes a convincing argument that the world has been becoming progressively less violent over millennia, even when catastrophic events such as the world wars of the 20th century are taken into account.  Among the several causes Pinker attributes to this phenomenon are the tendency of states to centralize and to monopolize force over time and, more recently, the rising and spreading of enlightenment values such as humanism and democracy.


This reduction accounts for violence committed within states as well as interstate conflicts.  The latter, which offers the potential for the most devastation, has seen its frequency levels drop dramatically in the past half-century.  The fact that large-scale acts of violence are being increasingly assumed by non-state actors, such as ISIS, that operate in political vacuums, can be seen as a possible sign that modern societies and political institutions are becoming less tolerant of pursuing these acts as policy.  In other words, it may be that self-selecting groups who represent the most belligerent aspects of society and who often find themselves in opposition to certain mainstream values are discovering other avenues for expression, in contrast to a situation in which mainstream values promote violence against outsiders through or with the help of the state.


      Many of the modern values that have contributed to the decline of violence are also positive developments in their own right, and produce other benefits.  Often born out of the enlightenment, these values have evolved over time and are increasingly manifesting themselves in political and social arrangements.  One notable example is the success of the Feminist movement, particularly in the 20th century and continuing to this day.  Another is the continuing decline of racism in developed nations, and especially in its capacity to work through state organs.  More generally, the notion of equality has been continuously developed and refined in the modern era in a way that hopefully will continue.  The increasing prevalence of democracy and self-determination in government offers even more hope in this regard.


    A great increase in material prosperity across the world is another noteworthy development, intensified by the forces of industrialization and globalization.  The scientific advancements that made industrialization possible eventually helped lead to incredible advancements in medicine as well, particularly during the 20th century.  According to the CDC, in 1900 the leading cause of death amongst Americans was infectious disease, but by 1997 it only accounted for 5%.  Diseases such as cancer and heart disease remain large threats, and infectious disease remains a serious issue in the developing world, but a strong basis of medical science exists that, if vigilantly built upon, will help us to continue to minimize the effects of illness.


     Of course, great challenges remain.  The same increase in production that has enhanced the living standards of so many has also resulted in great inequalities, between nations as well as between individuals.  The means by which this explosion of production has occurred is also the primary cause of accelerated climate change, a truly daunting an unprecedented threat.  The cruder and more demeaning aspects of capitalism offer the potential for alienation and cultural dilution.  However, if we face these issues with the same amount of energy and intellect that we have displayed over the last several hundred years, our chances look strong.  When assessing where we stand and where we should go, it is important to have a firm grasp on where we came from and the progress we have made.  It allows us to honor history and those who have positively contributed towards it, and helps to prevent us from making rash choices based on misinformation and unfounded anxiety.

 

What Really Matters

Education reform has taken so many paths in recent decades – raising expectations and standards, providing school choice, lengthening the school day or year, rewarding and valuing teachers, instituting high-stakes testing, launching races to the top, and more. One dimension of reform has been focused on school type, prompting a debate as to whether public, private, charter, alternative and virtual do better in boosting educational outcomes for students.

This is an interesting question, and one that, in terms of graduation rates, we set out to examine in the 2016 Building a Grad Nation report. The focus of this year’s report was driven by two key factors. First, the new Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to identify low-performing high schools (graduating 67 percent or less of students) and take action to improve them, and we wanted to lay the groundwork for understanding where and what type these schools are. Second, it is essential that the various pathways young people have available to them are, in reality, providing meaningful educational options, and are not just offering choice for choice’s sake.

What is interesting is that instead of being taken as an examination of low-graduation-rate schools, some took the report as a critique of certain school types. Sadly, this is representative of the education landscape today, where turf wars and ideological polarization reign, and real conversations about what is best for our nation’s young people often take a back seat.

The real question, however, is whether the current debate over school type entirely misses the point. Have we become so entangled in certain school types being better than others that we can no longer see that what matters is not the school type, but the success of the students within them? Does it really matter if students go to a traditional public high school or a charter school if neither provides them the opportunity to engage with and question the world around them? And maybe the most important question of all, can students be expected to do any of these things, regardless of where they are enrolled, if their basic needs are not being met in and out of the classroom?

The fact of the matter is, if we do not lead with these bigger questions, we lose sight of how to address the smaller ones – or determine if they even matter at all. Take school choice, for example. While providing choice to families that lack it may help, it alone does not ensure students are receiving a better education or have access to greater opportunity. And time and again, research has shown that the evidence on school choice is mixed at best, but rather than learning from these results, heels are dug in even deeper.

The present education landscape is littered with debates like these. Yes, they may be issues we need to contend with, but are they serving as a distraction to what is truly important in education today?

We are concerned with high school graduation rates because we know that earning a high school diploma is a critical indicator of lifelong success. We also understand that it matters less what type of school a student attends than what that school offers – specifically, opportunities to develop caring relationships with adults and peers, a safe and welcoming environment, authentic learning experiences, opportunities to engage with the world outside the classroom, and strong support every step of the way. Without these things, little else matters.

As efforts continue to improve education and increase academic performance, high school graduation rates, and higher education attainment for all students, it is imperative that the conversation around how to accomplish these goals becomes more productive. We need to use the data and research available to us to make smart, informed decisions about what is best for young people, and stop using it to gain ground in the battles that have consumed the public education space. This is not about what school type is best – it’s about what is best for students. Our greatest failure will be to lose sight of this fact.

Solving the Puzzle of Homelessness in America

In communities across America, homelessness is a rampant issue affecting children, young adults, and entire families. The number of people experiencing homelessness in America is staggering. On a single night in January 2015, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) counted 564,708 homeless individuals living in shelters, abandoned buildings, cars, or, even on the street. Meanwhile, the National Center for Homeless Education identified 1,301,239 public school students who experienced homelessness at some point during the 2013-14 school year.

Right now, Civic is preparing to release a report on children and youth homelessness, focusing on their experiences with schools. The report will look at how schools can best help homeless students navigate the challenges they face and their role as a hub that can connect children, youth, and families to other resources and services they need to succeed in school and beyond. Education is a critical piece in breaking the cycles of poverty and homelessness in our country. Failure to obtain a high school diploma or a higher degree of education puts youth at serious risk of not being able to succeed later in life.

However, education is just one piece of the puzzle to ending homelessness in America. Another side of the equation is the need for adequate and available housing that is affordable for low-income families.

Indeed, one of the most prevalent causes of homelessness is the severe lack of affordable housing in this country. Housing should be a basic human right for all but far too many low-income households struggle to find a home they can afford to live in.

While rents have risen since 2000, so too has the number of renters who need low-priced housing. According to a report by The Urban Institute, from 2000 to 2013, the number of extremely low-income renters (those renter households with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median income) have increased 38 percent to over 11.3 million, while across that same period, the supply of rental homes affordable to these households increased by only seven percent, to 3.2 million. This comes out to a supply gap of 8.1 million available and affordable rental homes. The same report states that no county in America has enough affordable housing for all its extremely low-income renters. Moreover, HUD defines cost-burdened households as those who spend more than 30% reports of their annual income on rent and utilities but an estimated 12 million renter households spend more than 50 percent of their annual income on housing.

How is it possible that so many Americans cannot afford even the most basic housing and what can be done to fix the issue?

Well the rising costs of rent have certainly contributed to the decrease in affordable housing, especially for low-income workers. On average, to afford to rent a one-bedroom, a renter must make an hourly wage of $15.50, double the federal minimum wage.[i] Increasing federal and state minimum wages would help low-income workers across America afford housing.

In addition, federal and state governments should work to increase the supply of affordable housing. To this end, HUD’s Office of Affordable Housing Programs administers two grant programs to increase the stock of housing options that are affordable for low-income households:

  • The HOME Investments Partnerships Program (HOME) provides grants to States and local governments to fund a wide range of activities, including building, buying, or rehabilitating housing for rent or homeownership or providing direct rental assistance to low-income families; and
  • The National Housing Trust Fund (HTF) provides communities with funds to build, preserve, and rehabilitate rental homes for extremely low income households or households with incomes below the poverty line.

Communities should also take advantage of nonprofit organizations, like Habitat for Humanity, that have local affiliates across the United States with the goal of building and providing affordable housing to low-income families.

Homelessness is a complex issue. Obviously, affordable housing is essential to keeping families and youth in homes and out of the streets. But just as important in ending the cycle of poverty and homelessness is making sure children and youth are completing their education even when circumstances cause them to experience stints of homelessness. If America is truly going to bring an end to homelessness and break the cycle of poverty, we must create clear goals and policies to ensure that all Americans can afford a place to live and that all students who must face homelessness are still able to succeed in school and beyond.


[i] Megan Bolton, et al. (2015). Out of Reach 2015: Low Wages & High Rents Lock Renters Out. Washington, DC: The National Low Income Housing Coalition. Accessed at http://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/oor/OOR_2015_FULL.pdf.

De Facto Segregation in the 21st Century

Among the myriad of issues facing public education in the United States, the lack of diversity across schools and districts, and in particular the concentrated poverty and anemic outcomes found within an unacceptable number of schools and districts that are predominantly black and Hispanic, is one of the most ignominious as well as one of the most difficult to address through top down policy.  It is a tremendously complex and vexing issue, in no small part because the sort of inequities that define it are not confined to education, but are indeed pervasive throughout much of society.  A complicated and at times troublesome history, racial bigotry, concentrated poverty, and very real concerns about constitutional rights all play a role in both making de facto segregation an ongoing problem and in molding the debate over what measures should be taken to address it.     

Years of research have shown the measurable benefits offered to students by maintaining racially and socio-economically diverse schools, especially for those who are minority and low-income.  The reasons for this vary, but may include higher expectations, increased parent involvement, and greater resources, as well as the more abstract social benefits of diversity itself.  The importance of socio-economic diversity has been particularly stressed in recent years, although in many parts of the country race and socio-economic status heavily coincide.  Lifting communities out of cyclical poverty and increasing their capacity for mobility through creating better opportunities to obtain a quality education is not only just, but leads to increases in economic growth and efficiency as well.   It would then seem to follow that a greater level of student heterogeneity in schools would bolster educational outcomes for students, and, in addition, be in the best interests of the nation as a whole. Despite this however, up to 92% of K-12 students in the United States attend racially and socio-economically homogeneous schools. This high level of segregation disproportionately places its adverse effects upon the economically disadvantaged, and in particular low-income blacks and Hispanics, with schools containing a majority of this demographic witnessing some of lowest levels of funding, highest level of teacher turnaround, and poorest outcomes in the nation.   

Paradoxically, the same integration that would most likely benefit society as a whole is to a certain extent resisted by that very society who’s laws, in their function as a preserver of its liberties, often serve to protect that opposition.  America’s complex struggle with this issue is exemplified by the debate over the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education.  Does it implicitly promote integration and proactively serve to augment the progress of a historically oppressed minority group?  Or does it act to eliminate race altogether from the considerations of districts and schools?  Several court cases in past decades, including Gratz v. Bollinger and Meredith v. Jefferson County School District, have effectively ruled unconstitutional the instituting of quotas and point systems and the reserving of seats as a way to increase racial diversity, which provides a partial answer to the legal question as it relates to the present day.  At this point in time, and in the wake of the lifting of court orders mandating integration during the Civil Rights Movement, segregation in schools is at a level not seen since the 1970s.  Since the largest determining factor in deciding which students attend what public school is largely determined by zoning and geographical proximity, the segregation of housing and neighborhoods can be seen as the primary driving force behind the current trend.  Indeed, the value we place on personal liberty as Americans and belief in the free market is a major factor in maintaining socio-economic partition, and, unfortunately, racial segregation, proving that the same rights and freedoms that allow us to accomplish wonderful things often enable us to express our prejudices in ways that impede our way forward.

Despite the incredible legal difficulties and moral ambiguity of attempting to force change from the top, it is also irresponsible and tepid to simply do nothing.  Fortunately, the last several years have revealed bright spots in the way of encouraging diversity.  More districts have been introducing efforts designed to increase socio-economic diversity, including rezoning and seat allocations, which, in addition to being a positive in its own right, often indirectly promotes racial diversity.  The number of school districts who use policies to explicitly encourage this type of diversity is at 91, up from just 40 in 2007.  The method of reserving seats for low-income students is particularly effective in urban areas undergoing demographic change, such as New York City, where students can be more easily assimilated during a time of rapid transition.  And on the federal level, President Obama recently announced the “Stronger Together” initiative, offering $120 million in competitive grants to districts that develop innovative policies in order to enhance socio-economic diversity.

Despite these efforts, there still exists a tremendous amount of progress to be made.  Methods such as setting aside seats for low-income students can be effective for promoting diversity in certain areas, but many others lack the necessary heterogeneity of population and economic dynamism to make such methods uniformly viable.  In all likelihood, society as a whole will have to progress considerably before the problem of school segregation is substantially palliated, with evidence-based and community involved policy being implemented along the way to expedite the process.  With proceeding generations of Americans becoming increasingly educated and cosmopolitan, this is a hopeful prospect.  When race becomes increasingly decoupled from class, when economic mobility for all Americans increases, and when communities are lifted out of states of cyclical poverty, then racial and social inequity will be reduced, leading to greater integration across schools.   In turn, greater equity in our education system will lead to an acceleration of the societal gains that make further integration possible.    

The Service Component to MLK Day

Martin Luther King, Jr. is arguably the most influential activist our nation has seen to date.

He organized a civil rights protest of over 200,000 people in Washington, led the Montgomery Bus Boycotts which culminated in a Supreme Court ruling outlawing bus segregation, and became the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize—all by the age of 35. To commemorate his accomplishments advancing civil rights in our country, we observe a federal holiday in January each year.

Many Americans, however, are unaware of the service component to MLK Day. Initially proposed by U.S. Senator Harris Wofford and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, the federal holiday—officially known as the MLK Day of Service—is observed as “a day on, not a day off” for the entire country. To honor his legacy, Americans are encouraged to volunteer in communities across the country.

Apart from one of civil rights, MLK’s legacy is a legacy of service. He brought communities together through his activism and leadership, and his use of nonviolence encompassed strong elements of compassion and humanity, both of which are rooted in American ideals. But above all, his life’s work taught Americans the value that comes from interacting with people of backgrounds different from their own.

Diversity is what makes the Untied States exceptional among the world’s leading nations. The “melting pot” quality of our population reaches far back to our country’s history, and it gives us that competitive advantage in today's globalized world. For this reason, we should embrace diversity and inclusion, not shy away from it.

The MLK Day of Service encourages us to embrace our diversity by bringing communities together through service and volunteerism.   Last year, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) released a comprehensive overview of volunteering and civic engagement in our country. Aside from uplifting statistics on how much Americans actually give back to their communities, the report points to one significant trend: the more people volunteer, the more they interact with one another. It seems that civic life in our country grows with each service hour—the report shows that Americans are interacting with their neighbors more, voting and participating in political life, and even joining community organizations.  And through this direct correlation between volunteerism and civic life, our collective power to enact change and solve local issues can undoubtedly increase.

MLK once said, “Everybody can be great because anybody can service.” The MLK Day of Service echoes this same sentiment. The holiday is more than just honoring Dr. King’s legacy and his fight for equality in our nation.  It’s about remembering our civic duty to give back to our community.  The service component to MLK Day helps foster a social environment to encourage Americans to embrace our nation's two most important traits: service and diversity.

What 2016 Has to Offer

Every year, Civic Enterprises and Everyone Graduates Center write the Building a Grad Nation report, which analyzes our nation’s progress towards the GradNation campaign goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020.

One component of this report is to determine which states are gaining ground, stagnating, or even falling back. This year, Kentucky caught our attention; not only because of the state’s overall high graduation rate and progress over time, but also because it had the smallest graduation gap between low-income and non-low-income students of any state in the country. We wanted to know what was driving those gains, and if there were practices and innovations being implemented in Kentucky that could benefit other states as they work to improve their own rates.

To answer these questions, we hit the road to Kentucky to meet with with teachers, school administrators, school support staff, funders, policy leaders, and nonprofits. We heard their thoughts on what has driven improvement in the state to this point, and their plans to continue that improvement going forward.  We will be releasing a report with our findings from these site visits, as well as our own data analysis of the state, in February 2016.

The Building a Grad Nation report also looks carefully at various student subgroups, such as low-income and special education students, and monitors their progress as compared to the nation as a whole. This year, a student subgroup that was not previously an area of focus for the report came to our attention – homeless students. This population of young people has grown rapidly over the last decade, but our ability to accurately count and provide support to homeless students remains desperately inadequate.

With the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, schools will be required to collect and report data on homeless students, and to provide more comprehensive training to McKinney coordinators and liaisons (the adults within school districts charged with counting and supporting homeless students). These changes will hopefully translate to more accurate data, and school systems that are more accessible to homeless students. However, to have a big impact on the outcomes for this group of young people, we need to involve a community of stakeholders – teachers, nonprofits, community organizations, policy makers, and many others. 

In order to raise awareness and shed light on this issue, Civic Enterprises is working with Hart Research Associates to conduct surveys and interviews with homeless students, as well as McKinney Vento coordinators. Our forthcoming report that combine the voices of homeless students themselves with policy recommendations and action steps that schools, communities, political leaders, and individuals can take to support this vulnerable population, and help them stay in school and, ultimately, on track to graduation.

We are excited for the work ahead in 2016, and the opportunities to continue to rally the nation around our young people to help them find success in school and in life, no matter the obstacles they face. 

Service, Diversity, and the Future of Democracy

At the inception of the American republic, the founders recognized what they saw would be a recurring challenge in the implementation of healthy democracy.  How do the omnipresent forces of interest and insularity reconcile with a necessary level of concern for the public good?  Engaging in the democratic process with one’s own interest in mind is not only inevitable, it is a vital, welcomed component of the exercise.  But when self-interest becomes the sole force guiding a democratic actor, and when decisions are made based on false perceptions and ignorance concerning our fellows and the greater national environment, the process suffers.  Politics become more polarizing, politicians become more divisive, and citizens are left with a denuded product and presented with false choices.  Through dynamic education, real awareness of our fellow citizens, and increased exposure to cultures and viewpoints that differ from our own, we can temper those forces.  National service encompasses all of these values, and in its participation can be found one of the most apparent avenues towards the instilment of empathy and public virtue within a young citizenry. 

When diversity is prevalent, critical thinking is provoked and innovation is catalyzed.  Years of research from social scientists have shown this to be true, and we can see it in our everyday experiences.  Working and living with those who are different from us forces us to open our minds when they may have previously been narrowed and compels us to recognize the needs of others when we may have been apathetic.  This exposure is crucial to maximizing the benefits of democracy, and national service programs that bring young Americans from various backgrounds together to work on socially and economically constructive projects is one of the most productive ways to ensure that a future generation of voters have the requisite awareness and level of empathy to become effective democratic citizens.

Veterans of service programs such as AmeriCorps consistently point to the diversity to which they were exposed as one of the most enriching aspects of their service.  When one considers that the value these volunteers ultimately provide to communities consistently produces an overwhelmingly positive return on investment, the argument appears strong for an expansion of national service opportunities to be a priority of public policy and a key goal in working towards the objective of strengthening American democracy.  As one veteran of the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps noted, “I was exposed to new ideas, perspectives, and became comfortable with having some of my own personal beliefs challenged,” adding that “In an era of polarization and divisiveness, national service provides an opportunity for citizens to find common ground and produce constructive solutions.” Not only will they become more informed, empathetic voters, they will also become more engaged voters.  A study conducted by Princeton University revealed that interactional and curricular diversity is positively associated with civic engagement, and that those who are exposed to a high level of diversity are “more likely to perform activities and services in order to improve outcomes for others.”

Offering the opportunity to work with a diverse cohort is not the only way in which national service can increase the capacity for empathy and conscientiousness amongst young citizens.  As part of the expansion of service opportunities, a national, cultural exchange could be established, in which members could choose to be sent to a geographic and cultural area that may seem “foreign” to them.  A young African-American woman from Philadelphia could be sent to mentor and teach youth at an underachieving school in rural West Virginia.  A young white man from rural Arkansas could spend a year in the south side of Chicago working on issues related to affordable housing.  A son or daughter of immigrants from Los Angeles could contribute to an economic development project in a Native American tribal community in Montana. 

These new experiences would at the very least broaden the perspectives of those who serve as well as those of recipient communities, and in aggregate have the very real potential of fortifying the nation as a whole.  At the close of their service year, students who took part in such a program would come together and share their experiences.  They would share what they learned about the communities they served, the needs and concerns of those communities, their similarities and differences to their own communities, and share the preconceived notions that they held that were dissolved or reinforced.  The resulting product would be a group of young citizens who base their opinions and beliefs on knowledge and experience instead of ignorance and baseless distrust.  Imagine if such a program was scaled to include a large proportion of young Americans, and imagine the benefits that would be reaped when this generation and subsequent generations become the majority of voters and the leaders of society.

Disagreement and a diversity of beliefs and interests are integral aspects of what makes a democracy.  It is when the beliefs and concepts that direct engagement are overly myopic and based in ignorance instead of knowledge that democracy suffers.  It is up to society as a collective to ensure that the public is informed, empathetic, and engaged to the greatest extent possible.  As a means to this end, the expansion of national service should be prioritized by both governments and the private sphere.  As an increasing number of young Americans become more civically engaged and further aware of our great diversity through service, the democratic process will inevitably come closer to reaching its full potential and will decreasingly tolerate those who would use division and fear to ascend themselves politically, and our society will be afforded the comfort in knowing that those who direct it have the proper level of knowledge and insight required to make decisions that advance the public good.      

         

Poverty Matters

A common refrain from education reformers of the past decade has been “poverty doesn’t matter.” In this narrative, being poor is a simple obstacle to overcome by heightened expectations, a no-excuses mentality, and a little more hard work.

But the stark reality is, the story is far more complex. Every day we are learning more about how poverty adversely affects a child’s growth, development, academic achievement, and long-term life success.

Here is just a small sample of what we know:

  • Children born into poverty are more likely to be born at a low birth weight, putting them at risk for long-term motor and social development delays.
  • More than 45 percent of children in poverty in 2013 lived in food insecure homes. Child hunger has been linked to lower academic achievement, social and behavioral problems, increased hospitalization, and physical and intellectual development impairments.
  • The “toxic stress” experienced by children in poverty, especially in early childhood, can disrupt brain development and lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.
  • Persistently poor children are 13 percent less likely to complete high school by age 20, 29 percent less likely to enroll in postsecondary education by age 25, and 43 percent less likely to complete a four-year college degree by age 25. They are also 37 percent less likely to be consistently employed as young adults than those that experienced poverty on a non-persistent basis.

And it’s not just economic poverty that hurts our nation’s children. A recent report from America’s Promise Alliance details the “relationship poverty” – a lack of access and connection to people who can help them to a more promising future – that ultimately leads many students to become disconnected from school. So not only do these students lack access to the basic resources so many of us take for granted, they also miss out on the critical social capital that helps their wealthier peers get ahead in school and life.

The enormous deficits poor students must overcome to succeed cannot be ignored or simply solved away with trendy reforms. What these students and their families need are resources and opportunities from day one. In order to make this happen, we need to make sure the conversation starts and ends by acknowledging the challenge of poverty – not pretending it doesn’t exist.

In coming weeks this blog will continue to explore the effects of poverty on children and how it impacts our schools and communities. It will address issues ranging from the latest research on the effects of poverty to the ways schools and communities are working to meet the needs of low-income students and improve their life outcomes. To join in this critical conversation, please subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on social media, and check back for bi-weekly updates.